Today and Tomorrow

I’ve been mulling over whether or not to write about Jan Swafford’s piece in Slate magazine about contemporary concert music, “A Grand Tour of Contemporary Music: All the new noise explained.” Between the comments section to the article itself and the subsequent discussion Armando Bayolo started over at Sequenza21, many of the positives and negatives of Swafford’s article have been hashed over, but one concept still seems to be left hanging—the actual point of his piece (at least in the way that the article’s title suggests). I will admit that I was intrigued and excited to see a magazine at the level of Slate fronting an examination of new directions in contemporary concert music of the past decade or so, especially since most of the composers I’ve been interviewing over the past year have had surprisingly little to say about the subject.

The last question that I ask composers I’m interviewing is “Describe the musical landscape as you see it today and where you think it’s headed?”. I assumed that asking current composers where they thought we were as an art form and where things might go in the near future would be a pretty straightforward way to generate some valuable discussion and ideas. After asking many composers that exact question, I’ve been surprised to learn how little most composers seem concerned about what’s going on now stylistically in the new music scenes around the country and almost all of them wouldn’t care to prognosticate the future for contemporary concert music. There were several reasons for this across the board, but most had very simple explanations for not jumping down this particular rabbit hole—they are so busy with their own careers and composing that taking stock of the current state of the art form as it exists today is just too time-consuming, and trying to guess which direction music was going to follow in the future is a fool’s errand. If the composer did decide to try their hand at describing the current state of things, the result was connected to the composer almost entirely in regional or personal terms (I know of [fill in the blank] because I’ve heard them close-by or I went to school with them.)

I was reminded of these explanations as I read Swafford’s essay. In it, he has a go at finding an easily packageable number of “advances” that have been made over the past decade or so in concert music and then looks to brand each advance with its own label. The advances he introduces and explains to a fair degree—spectralism, “aesthetic brutalism,” and the “new niceness”—make it seem as if he had been asked a quick question about defining new music and had grasped the first few ideas that were closest at hand; his examples tended to be drawn from either the Boston area where he resides (BMOP composers, Gandolfi, Fineberg) or obvious choices at a national scale (Higdon for “niceness”, Murail and Grisey for spectralism). In addition, his attempt at labeling these advances hearkened back to the idea of a fool’s errand—not only were the terms somewhat obvious in nature, they also had very little to do with the music he was strapping them to except on a very basic surface level. While it is understandable why a working composer might want to keep their blinders on and not worry about what the current “advances” of the day might be, it is curious why someone writing for such a large audience follows in such a similar path.

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One thought on “Today and Tomorrow

  1. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Rob- Thanks so much for posting this! This article has, as you mention, been widely discussed in various forums (including the Equilibrium Concert Series facebook page where Jan has posted a response to his original Slate piece: http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=179825998705303&topic=53). To be honest, I was a student of Jan’s at the Boston Conservatory where I did my masters, although I never studied privately with him.

    I very much like this article, if for no reason other than that it tries to broaden the nature of our categories. Given that Slate is not meant strictly for musicians, it makes perfectly good sense to both simplify and generalize these ideas when writing for a potential audience of enthusiasts. Also, readership aside, I personally prefer these broader categories and fewer specific groupings.

    What Swafford does nicely is to start to move the emphasis of categorization from compositional technique to attitude. While spectralism is of course a technique, it could be expanded further to stand for composers whose attitude is oriented toward utilizing and enriching an established method. With that, we have a kind of ven-diagram of compositional attitudes. Two deal with position with respect to the audience, and one doesn’t.

    I’ve also been thinking a good deal about the notion of brutalism. I like his characterization, because although Friedman’s “Eight Songs” and Xenakis’ “Psappha” have nothing in common but volume, they certainly do share a common impetus. Perhaps brutalism could be expanded to a spectrum that ranges from gently challenging the listener with provocative music on one end, to aurally assaulting them on the other….?

    As for niceness, I believe this could be re-defined as those who feel that music communicates best when the vocabulary is already understood. In describing niceness, it is easy to come off as sounding disparaging. Take Joan Tower, whose music I love. I suspect she has, over her many years of composing, adopted the stance that her ideas of form and drama and narrative are best understood with sounds which do not require a re-orientation of the listeners’ ears.

    Long response…. thanks for reading! I’m so glad that you decided to address the content of the article, Rob. Enough has been said about tone. Thanks again

    Reply

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